I’ve just wrapped up a stretch of long days and late nights, coming at the end of an atypically unpredictable summer, so it feels a bit disingenuous for me to write about time management right now. But I am a notorious time management junkie, one of those people who procrastinates by reading blogs about doing everything better and faster, whose favorite thing about the Harry Potter universe is Hermione’s time-turner. Talk about multitasking!
Multitasking is one thing I don’t do well—and I think we’re all starting to realize it’s not a good tactic. In the freelance life, being flexible and able to dig in and focus are essentials, however, and late nights at deadlines aren’t fun for anyone but college students.
I like to say my favorite time management trick is to have small children. Of course, it’s not possible—or desirable—for many out there, but while I do have 6-year-old and 3-year-old sons, I don’t mean this literally. What I do mean is have something that you absolutely, positively, cannot ignore forever. Something that is so insistent, so nonnegotiable, that it makes you get up from your chair. A class, a volunteer commitment, another job, a dog who needs to be walked.
This does two things: It forces you to take breaks, and it forces you to not squander your time. When you know you have only a set period of time (three hours, maybe), and no mercy at the end of it, you get down to business much more quickly. It’s the “I work best under deadline pressure” principle, but applied to a daily schedule, and without the negative repercussions of missing an actual client deadline. If your “small child” is something (or someone) really fun, it’s even better.
One thing that amazes me about small children is their ability to focus so intensely for short periods of time. With practice, the “small child” trick can help you do the same—jump in to your work without endless transition time. In turn, this helps you to do my other favorite tip: Do as much as you can when you can.
I do this a couple of different ways. One, I like to frontload as much as possible. If a deadline is short enough that I know some late nights will have to happen, I do those at the beginning of the project. I set an artificial deadline at least two days ahead of the actual one, and the artificial one is the one I put on my calendar. It’s kind of like setting your watch seven minutes fast, except without the mental re-calculation of the time whenever you look at it. This lets me handle problems from sick days to technical issues without having them turn into last-minute disasters. It’s kind of a corollary to having small children—something will always come up, so plan for it. It’s easier to get ahead at the beginning than to catch up at the end.
The other way I manage to do this, besides putting in extra work at the front end of the schedule, is to fit in bits of work in short periods of time. While on a perfect day, I’d have six hours with no interruptions to dive in and be in a state of flow, that almost never happens. But the “small child” (for me, an actual small child) helps me be focused quickly, so even short periods of time are good for editing a couple of pages of an index, or entering headings and page ranges for chapters and large sections of a text, saving the detailed analysis for a longer period of time. These short half-hour bits of time are even good for reading all the time management blogs and other articles I would be distracted by otherwise!
However, as I said at the beginning of this post, my schedule has been anything but regular lately. There are always periods like this—school’s out, or you move, or there’s travel, or all of these hit at the same time—but these two tips really help me stay afloat and still have space to rest. After all, doing as much as you can when you can doesn’t have to apply only to work—it can apply to sleep or play as well!
What are some of your favorite time management resources? I’m always looking for new ones!